"Educating people and dispelling the myths around sorcery could prevent further sorcery accusations and result in fewer attacks… I suggested it would be good to do an open post mortem” - Dr Betty Koka, Head of Rural Health, Divine Word University
MELBOURNE - In 1978, when I was District Officer at Saidor in Madang Province, the brother of a prominent Saidor personality died at Madang Hospital.
Immediately the news was received at Saidor his family began agitating that he had been killed by sorcery, saying they intended to seek revenge from the group that allegedly had practised the sorcery.
The situation became problematic, so I sought advice from the provincial medical officer in Madang to bring the groups together to resolve the accusations and potential violence.
I was advised that the man had died of a brain aneurysm and was given a quick medical lecture on the condition.
My next step was to arrange for a meeting between the family and those they accused of sorcery against the deceased.
I arranged for several police to be within hailing distance but not present in the meeting room. Whilst those accused of sorcery admitted to a dispute with the dead man’s group, they claimed that it was not serious enough to have resulted in sorcery nor did they have any capacity to invoke it.
I then advised the groups that I had spoken to the medical authorities and proceeded to give them a medical lecture on the nature of brain aneurysms, their effect of how they could cause death, stressing this was not an unusual medical condition, many people in the world experienced it and it had nothing to do with sorcery.
After a question and answer session, in which I emphasised that this was information from the doctor, the groups finally accepted this as a natural death and shook hands.
There were other instances in my time in Papua New Guinea where there were obvious conflicts between village people’s traditional magico-religious beliefs and their allegedly strong Christian beliefs.
These generally took the form of carved totems of people, animals or other symbols placed strategically at the entrance to individual houses or the paths into the village.
The symbols were also positioned in village food gardens to ensure fertility for bountiful harvests. Examples of these are in the Sepik men’s houses and there were some at Parliament House before their removal.
When on patrol and approaching villages, I recall walking through garden areas with prominent carved phalluses as corner posts to the garden fences.
Having regard to the history of PNG and its people, whilst education is widespread and of a reasonable standard, this wasn’t always so. Most village history was oral and therefore easily misinterpreted or confused by the passage of time.
Because there was little or no written resource to refer to or a shared technical knowledge, it was easy to explain away events or occurrences as ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’, particularly when there was animosity between the various groups in an immediate area.
Whilst an autopsy will provide immediate confirmation of a specific cause of death, without more widespread education, the question remains whether such initiatives on their own will rid the nation of sorcery among less literate people.